Teleological Thinking

What differentiates humans from animals?  Apparently not just the ability to think.  I see the main difference as the ability to think about thinking, which is metacognition, or a very high level of consciousness.  Although some species have shown some rudimentary form of metacognition, humans by far are better at it.  Without being taught explicity, children can learn to take on the perspectiive of others by 5 or 6.  They are intellecutally curious, and learn to ask the who, what, when, how, and why questions, sometimes making sense, sometimes not.

In my opinion, the “why” questions have not only lead to the most knowlegde, but also to the most nonsense.  Consider this example:

*splat* (flattened cockroach)
“Daddy, why did you kill the cockroach?”
“Well the cockroach is dirty and will make you sick, so daddy got rid of it.”
“Why do cockroaches make you sick?”
“Well the cockroaches carry germs that can make you sick.”
“Why do cockroaches carry germs?”
“Well, they don’t want to, but they pick up the germs by running around.  And those germs can make you very sick and die.”
“Why do people die?”
“Uh, well Daddy doesn’t want to die and certainly doesn’t want you to die.  Daddy is here to protect you.”
“Why are there germs? Why are there cockroaches? Why do people die?”

At some point,the conversation reaches a limit of understanding, for both the kid and the dad.  The dad is faced with two choices.  Admitting he doesn’t know the answer, which is not overly appealing, or invoking a stereotypical “God” which when followed by more questions, leads down a rabbit hole of nonsense.

In the kid’s simple reasoning, the dad exists FOR the protection of the son.  The cockroach exists FOR disease spreading.  The sun exists FOR plants to grow.  The kid, dad, cockroach, and sun all exist FOR the glory of God, praising and presumably boosting His ego for lack of better explanation.  By extrapolation, there is an ultimate end, a goal, a “telos” for everything.  And sadly, many never grow out of this simple reasoning.  Confusion of cause and effect, or misattribution of causation when absent, simply does not make sense.

Knowledge is advanced through the asking and answering of successively better questions, and good questions are those that can be tested.  When faced with unprovable “why” questions such as “Why is the rock there?”, if people just answered intellectually honestly with “I don’t know” instead of “well, God put it there for your sitting pleasure”, the question would likely remain just that – a bad question.  An unwillingness to admit ignorance and teleological reasoning leads to the propagation of belief in an increasingly detailed mythical bearded superbeing who gets mad at what you do in your own privacy.

Maybe one day we will be able to get to the point we can answer more “why” questions.  By then we probably will have evolved to have a brain so big we need an extra neck to support it.  But for now, it is beyond the limit of our cognitive capacity to realistically understand.

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